They appeared early this summer in parks and other public places around Cedar Rapids: small, smooth stones brightly painted with images of animals or abstract designs. Inscriptions on the reverse side of each direct finders to keep or re-hide the rocks.
“Where does this begin?” the artist said one afternoon this past week. “I have no idea.”
But Roxy, who wishes to remain anonymous, credits his inspiration to a visit to Colorado last year. A painted stone found along a street in Grand Junction led to a Facebook page set up by a loosely-organized group whose members paint and leave the stones for others to find.
The Colorado group is one of several across the country pursuing what’s become an ongoing artistic public scavenger hunt.
“I thought, ‘That’d be kind of fun,’” Roxy said. “I like the joy of it. I got joy when I found it, and other people seem to express that same emotion. It’s putting art out in the public and having people appreciate it.”
So early this summer, Roxy, a recently-retired city employee in his early 60s, painted some small stones and placed them around Cedar Rapids. He launched a Facebook page, CRROX, for finders to post their finds.
“People seem to like it,” said Roxy, who places a new batch of 10 to 20 stones every week or two.
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“I kind of like things like that,” said Bruce Eichacker of Amana. He found one of Roxy’s stones about a week before Labor Day at the electric-vehicle charging station at NewBo City Market.
“Here’s this rock sitting right by the charger, and it’s brightly colored,” said Eichacker. “It was cute, it was whimsical. I thought, ‘What the heck?’ I took it to Florida with me, and I left it.”
Jennifer Schmidt’s children discovered their first Roxy in early October.
“They were really excited, they were jumping up and down,” Schmidt said. “Now, they like to go out and look for rocks.”
Schmidt said her daughter, Brooklyn, 7, and son, Cruz, 5, find the stones on walks through downtown Cedar Rapids near their home.
“I thought it was really neat,” Schmidt said. “The pictures on the rocks were really beautiful.”
Roxy’s work inspired Schmidt’s children to join in.
“Now they’re drawing on rocks and want to hide them around town,” she said.
Roxy starts with a sack of smooth landscaping stones purchased at a home-improvement store. He washes and spray-paints each before adding the final design.
“A couple coats of Rustoleum white, and that gets a good non-porous surface,” he said.
The stones are hidden in plain sight — on a drinking fountain and playground equipment in a park near Roxy’s home, on fences and ledges downtown and in Czech Village and New Bohemia. Choosing neighborhoods with ample pedestrian traffic helps ensure the stones are usually found within a few days.
“They’re pretty easy to find,” Roxy said.
Using acrylic paints applied with a fine brush, Roxy works the stone to tease out the final design. Random bumps and divots become facial features. Each group has a loose theme — mice, cats, dogs, owls and fish have all had their moments. A final clear coat protects the image.
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“It’s hard to do butterflies,” Roxy said in his northeast Cedar Rapids home where the stones share space with his other work. There are 4-by-6-foot acrylic-on-canvas paintings and collages, smaller prints and eccentric lamps made from plumbing parts.
Roxy’s larger works have appeared in local galleries, and his lamps are sold at a few shops. Roxy’s never formally studied art.
“I’ve been doing art,” he said, indicating a smaller canvas, a work in progress featuring his wife’s eyes.
“I like her eyes, and I think this turns out really well,” he said.
The stones carry no QR code to scan or lucky numbers to match. They can’t be redeemed for discounts at a local business.
“I’m not about that,” said Roxy. “It’s not right.”
What it’s about is a small, anonymous gift to his hometown.
“I like Cedar Rapids,” he said. “I think it’s a good town. I think the people here are good, and I think it’s pretty well-run. After living here so long, I grew to love it.”
Roxy plans to continue making his art-rock drops through the winter.
“They’ll get covered up with snow, and there will be 1,000 rocks out there,” he said. “But people still walk around in the winter.”